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Politics | Society | Media

Gambia to harden press offence punishment

afrol News, 15 December - The Gambia again follows the example of Zimbabwe and hardens punishments for press offences. Following the draconic media law of 2002, the Gambian parliament now is set to pass a law that includes prison terms of not less than six months for media writing negatively about the government.

The Gambian government has proposed a Criminal Code Amendment Bill, which the government-dominated and controlled parliament soon is set to rubber-stamp into law. There is little doubt that the National Assembly will bow to government pressure and pass the bill as it has only three members from the opposition.

Media watchdogs claim that this bill may be "the most ominous evidence yet that the government of President Yaya Jammeh is determined to kill off the independent media and limit the space for freedom of expression in The Gambia."

The gazetted bill outlines imprisonment terms of not less than six months, without the option of a fine, for first time offenders for "seditious and libellous" publications. Furthermore, subsequent offenders may be sentenced to not less than three years in jail, without the option of a fine, and any media used in the alleged seditious publication "shall be forfeited to the State."

The government claims that the Criminal Code Amendment Bill intends to "lay down the basis for a free and independent media," but this is strongly rejected by the independent media of The Gambia and human rights groups. Most African countries have or are to decriminalise press offences altogether to assure freedom of expression.

The amendments also purport to expand the original definition of libel and to broaden the scope of actions or expressions that would be liable to criminal prosecution. Critics hold that it will become much easier for the increasingly repressive regime of President Jammeh to totally censor the press.

Media freedom, freedom of expression, and the diversity and pluralism of views and the media are guaranteed and reinforced in the 1997 Constitution. However, the relentless application of arcane decrees and provisions, the continued promulgation of restrictive laws has already put media freedom and freedom of expression in The Gambia under siege.

The Telegraph Stations Act, a decree of 1913, is still being used to prevent independent radio stations from broadcasting. The National Media Commission Act of 2002 was modelled after Zimbabwe's draconic media laws to assure state censorship.

Where the legislation could not be applied to close down independent media, the state and ruling party has done so with impunity. The government for examples still is forcefully keeping the radio station 'Citizen FM' closed, contrary to a High Court ruling. Mobs associated with the ruling party have on several occasions bombed the weekly newspaper 'Independent' with impunity.

And now, the imminent passage into law of the proposed Criminal Code Amendment Bill by the National Assembly "must raise urgent concerns about the fate of media rights and freedom of expression in The Gambia," comments the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).

The Gambia has a history of a relatively free and vital press. This however has slowly changed after the young and poorly educated ex-Sergeant Yaya Jammeh seized power via military coup d'état in 1994. As he was forced by international pressure to return the country to constitutional democratic rule in 1996, Mr Jammeh has used every trick in the book to manipulate elections and control and muzzle journalists and the press.

After years of operating with impunity in heavy-handed attacks on the press and the opposition, in 2002, parliament passed the controversial National Media Commission Act (NMC Act). The Act produced a media commission with far-reaching and totalitarian powers to censure, suspend or revoke the licenses of journalists and the media. The commission could also reprimand, fine, and even sentences journalists to terms of imprisonment.

Consequently, the Gambia Press Union (GPU), together with the MFWA and other international human rights organisations, led a sustained campaign of protests and court challenges, for a repeal of the obnoxious Act. The GPU insisted that journalists should be allowed to constitute their own, self-regulatory, mechanism as envisaged by the 1997 Constitution of the country.

On 20 October this year, the Gambian Minister for Information and Communication, Amadou Janneh, announced that the controversial NMC Act would "shortly" be repealed by parliament.

On Monday, 13 December, the National Assembly finally repealed the NMC Act. But, there is still no respite for the media. The parliament, on the same day, passed into law legislation entitled the "Newspaper Amendment Act 2004". This Act effectively nullifies the existing registrations of all media establishments in the country, and requires them to make fresh registrations with the Registrar General's office within two weeks of the coming into force of the law.

At the same time, all private media houses are required to post a dalasi 500,000 (about US$ 16,665) bond, an increase of 400 percent from the previous dalasi 100,000. This new law, coupled with the imminent passage of the Criminal Code Amendment Bill, "effectively derogates from all the gains made for media freedom and freedom of expression in The Gambia and West Africa as a whole," said today the MFWA.

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